University X: Exploring the Online Student Experience to Identify Differentiators, Supportive Others, and Potential Interventions to Enhance On-Time Pacing and Graduation Rates
University X (anonymized as “UX”) is an American online nonprofit higher education institution offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs designed to be both affordable and flexible. Not quite one quarter of the school’s online students graduate in the time they anticipated they would when they enrolled. Half of UX students graduate from their undergraduate program in six years. With 50% of matriculates likely not to graduate within six years, that increases the likelihood of student attrition away from UX and perhaps out of their college or graduate school experience entirely. Despite the UX affordable model, this represents significant loss of financial resources; time spent away from work, family, and other commitments; and lost potential of self-actualization for the student-as-graduate, lending gravity and urgency to this study. Deductively-reasoned patterns advised by student voices were re-situated in organizational socialization (OS) and self-determination theory (SDT) to devise a quantitative survey instrument to validate (or nullify) the findings with a larger student sample to answer the research questions "What conditions differentiate successful and unsuccessful students?" and "Among online UX students, what is the level (or lack) of localized supportive others in their experience to date?" The qual->QUAN design was intended to scaffold in order to recommend targeted interventions exploring possible answers to the final research question, "What role can the institution play to increase positive student outcomes?" Findings surfaced by qualitative data include four antecedent student characteristics and behaviors as well as two within-institution habits impacting individual adjustment at UX. Recommendations are to deploy the survey to verify or contradict these findings; cross-compare data gleaned from this project with other existing student data; and to further explore autonomy-supportive behaviors by knowledgeable insiders (UX mentors, instructors, and/or alumni) as a possible means to positively effect online student motivation. To guide continued exploration, an Interactionalist Expanded Model of the Student Lived Experience was created using theory elaboration.